Amanda Lindhout

A House in the Sky

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A House in the Sky Summary

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A House in the Sky is a 2013 memoir by the Canadian humanitarian and journalist Amanda Lindhout. Co-written with Sara Corbett, the book recounts Amanda’s early life, her burgeoning wanderlust, and eventually her harrowing experience of being taken hostage for a year by Islamic extremists in Somalia. A New York Times best-seller, the book won the CBC’s Bookie Award for Best Nonfiction.

The first few chapters establish Amanda’s early life and upbringing in Alberta, Canada. Already not very wealthy, the family fell deeper into poverty after her father left her family to be in a stable, healthy relationship with another man. Amanda would try to escape her impoverished life by dreaming of travel. She and her brother would collect recycled goods, sell them, and she would use her share of the money to buy old National Geographic issues. She would pore through them voraciously, imagining how much she would enjoy visiting these places herself.

At the age of eighteen, on the cusp of adulthood, Amanda moves out to the city of Calgary. She lives with her boyfriend, Jamie, but the two still barely scrape by in poverty, struggling to pay rent. Nonetheless, Amanda still has the same dreams of traveling the world. She works as a hostess in restaurants, bars, and nightclubs until she finally has enough money to travel with Jamie to South America. They eventually break up, but the experience is nonetheless transformational. Despite her wanderlust, Amanda is an unexperienced traveler. Therefore, she is hesitant at first to try the local cuisine and customs. These barriers eventually drop, however, and Amanda falls in love with embracing other cultures.

Back in Calgary, Amanda commits herself to a new lifestyle: she would do hostess work for three or four months at a time in her home city, live frugally, and use the money she saved to buy her about six months’ worth of traveling. Some of her destinations during this period included a 2004 trip to Thailand with her mother–whom Amanda describes as a “mellow” traveler–and a 2005 jaunt to Dhaka, Bangladesh. It’s in Bangladesh, however, that Amanda first catches a glimpse of some of the potential dangers and challenges of her lifestyle. She is unable to secure a hotel room, for example, because she is a woman traveling alone with no man. She also has a big scare when a rickshaw driver starts to drive her in the wrong direction. At first, she assumes he is taking her somewhere to hurt her in some way. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. However, not long after, she is robbed at gunpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Amanda’s life shifts dramatically when she meets Nigel Brennan, a photojournalist. The two share an affair until Amanda learns from Nigel over the phone and through his own tears that he has a wife. Sometime later, Amanda resolves to visit Somalia where a woman has set up a camp to help her fellow citizens deal with violence, state-sanctioned and otherwise. Nigel, having recently divorced his wife, agrees to come along. The two believe they have taken all the necessary precautions: they hire a bodyguard and ensure they have the necessary information to survive the tumultuous country — or so they believe. One day on the way to the camp, their car is stopped by soldiers. It’s at this point that teenage members of the fundamentalist terrorist group Hizbul Islam overtake Nigel, Amanda, and even the soldiers, taking all of them hostage.

At first, the conditions are bad but livable. The hostages are moved from house to house often. One night, however, Amanda is taken to the middle of the desert by two of the terrorists. Believing because she is American that her family has money, they demand that her parents pay a $1 million ransom for her release. Amanda tells them the truth: that coming up with this much money would be virtually impossible for her parents.

After that, conditions worsen. Amanda is regularly beaten and brutalized until she finally pleads with her family to pay the ransom, worried that she won’t survive otherwise. This is a source of great shame for her, as she knows how much her parents and friends had to sacrifice in order to pay even part of the ransom. Eventually, after more than a year in captivity, she and Nigel are released after their families pay a combined $600,000 to the terrorists. When Amanda returns, it’s no longer her wanderlust that torments her, but the trauma she experienced during the harrowing events in Somalia.

In the years following her captivity, Amanda has created a foundation to help educate Somali youths. As for A House in the Sky, the New York Times writes that “Lindhout’s resilience transforms the story from a litany of horrors into a humbling encounter with the human spirit.”